Somewhere over the Asian steppes near the northern Kushan border
“How fast do storms come in here?” Bayang the dragon asked, staring at the dark gray clouds boiling rapidly toward them from the east. The misty wave rolling toward them was at least a mile across and two miles long, and their shadows plunged the mountains beneath them into an ominous twilight.
Scirye and her companions were sitting on a great triangular wing that had been woven magically from straw, and Scirye tugged at a strand of her red hair as she wondered how long the flimsy mat would last in a tempest like that.
Suddenly the wing lurched upward. “Ho, fear not, lumplings,” boomed the great wind, Naue. For a wind, he was fairly pleasant company, except for a bad habit of boasting.
In Hawaii, they had saved the goddess Pele and, in return, she had helped them on their quest by summoning the Cloud Folk to weave the straw wing they rode on now. She had also charged the powerful zephyr, Naue, to carry them on their quest, and he had faithfully carried them to the Arctic and now into Asia. “No little drizzle can stop Naue the magnificent. He will just carry you above it.”
As Naue picked up speed, the sound of their passage rose to a high keening, and perhaps they would have been blown off the mat except for the magical frame of woven straw. The frame was little more than woven poles set upon four upright ones so that it resembled the sketch of a house, but its enchantment protected them as efficiently as brick walls would have.
Behind Scirye, the snow-covered steppes stretched like a huge sheet of cotton batting. It was so vast, so empty, so harsh. It had shaped her ancestors, the Kushans, into a warrior race as hard and sharp as steel. She had never appreciated just how tough they must have been—she knew that she herself could never have survived there.
Somebody as weak as she had no place chasing Badik the dragon and his employer, Roland, who was one of the richest men in the world. Worse, when they had stolen an ancient Kushan treasure and killed her sister, Scirye had been so blinded by rage that she had rashly asked the powerful goddess Nanaia to help her get her revenge. Now there was no question of dropping the pursuit because Nanaia always expected people to keep their word—or else.
Scirye’s palm itched at the mere thought of the goddess, and she glanced at the glove covering it. There was a faint glow from Nanaia’s mark, the number 3, though they could only guess what it meant. Scirye might have felt more reconciled to the bargain if the goddess had made it clear what She wanted Scirye to do.
Scirye and her friends had already survived a trip through the molten insides of a volcano and the sinking of an island to the freezing Arctic wastes, but their greatest trials were just ahead.
Her green eyes gloomily watched the mountains pass underneath them. Snow covered the mountains’ shoulders and the steep black slopes looked as if some giant monster had raked its claws through the earth.
On the other hand, Scirye’s lap griffin, Kles, had grown up in mountains like these, and the excitement of his homecoming had made her parrot-sized friend chattier than usual, eyes bright, eagle-shaped head jerking from side to side, and lionlike tail twitching as if he wanted to take in everything.
Upon her shoulder now, he fluttered his wings and crowed excitedly, “The Astär Mountains, the roof of the world.” Astär meant arrow in the old tongue, and the sharp peaks did look like arrowheads. “Home! We’re home, lady. We—.” He dove suddenly, pinning a two-inch-high badger against the mat near a pouch. “Stay out of the supplies!”
The head of an indignant Koko wiggled up between two of Kles’s claws. His round head seemed to be all gray fur except for the large, shining black eyes—made to appear even larger by the rings of black fur.
His round ears wriggled indignantly on top of his head as he piped in a barely audible voice, “I just wanted a snack. Transformation is hungry work.”
Another miniature Koko kicked the griffin’s haunch. “Don’t be such a pill. When we’re this size, it won’t be more than a nibble.”
“Yeah, you’ll never notice it, you big bully.” A third Koko pounced on Kles’s tail and began trying to pull the griffin off his prisoner. More tiny Kokos joined him in yanking at Kles until the exasperated griffin let go of his captive and swept his forepaws behind him, bowling little badgers left and right.
The air hummed as Leech floated over on his flying discs, his brown hair rippling about his head. He was a human boy about Scirye’s age, and he had joined her quest when Badik had killed his friend Primo. “I thought you were trying to transform into a tiger?”
A dozen Kokos scratched their heads. “So did I,” they all chorused.
“Will you re-unite?” Kles snapped. “One of you is bad enough.”
“Keep your paws crossed that this works.” When the miniature badgers began muttering and making passes, their outlines shimmered. Immediately they began running toward one another, merging until there was a single, much larger badger again. “Whew, that’s a relief,” he said, rubbing his fur vigorously. “But I itch all over now.”
As Leech squatted to scratch his friend’s back, he asked Kles and Scirye, “How much further to the City of Death?”
“We find a peak called the Black Diamond and turn east,” the griffin explained.
Koko gave a shiver. “So why do they call it the City of Death anyway? Is it full of skeletons?”
“It was where Yi the Archer killed a terrible monster who was destroying the countryside,” Kles explained. “The grateful people built a temple in his honor, and so many pilgrims visited it that a city grew up near it. Many centuries later, the Kushans and griffins stopped an army of Huns there, but at great cost. Neither the defenders nor the invaders survived, and no one goes there now.”
“Except Roland and Badik,” Scirye said.
“Yes, except them,” Leech agreed. “But we’ll stop them.”
Roland and Badik were heading there, where they hoped to find the last part of an ancient super weapon that would be capable of destroying a sun. They already had the bow of the fabled archer Yi, as well as the special archer’s ring, for which they had killed Scirye’s sister, Nishke, and injured her mother, Lady Sudarshane. Now the thieves were hunting for the arrows.
Suddenly Kles’s fur and feathers began to fluff out and Koko began to scratch more furiously than before. Scirye’s own skin began to tingle as if a thousand ants were running up and down over her.
“I think that storm is moving even faster now,” Bayang said.
The roiling storm swallowed up the land as it chased after them like an angry gray tidal wave.
Copyright © 2013 by Laurence Yep